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Monument dedicated at site of Allegheny Airlines crash

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This memorial now stands at the entrance to Shady Acres Trailer Park off London Road to serve as a permanent reminder of Indiana’s worst airlines disaster that occurred on Sept. 9, 1969.
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Nolan Elrod, the grandson of the captain of Allegheny Airlines 853, spoke eloquently of how the tragedy of Sept. 9, 1969, affected his family's life.
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Diane Elrod and John Elrod, two of Allegheny Airlines 853 captain James Elrod's three children, unveil the monument marking the crash site of Allegheny Airlines 853 and a Piper Cherokee piloted by Robert Carey during a memorial service Monday morning off London Road in northwestern Shelby County. The two planes collided mid-afternoon on Sept. 9, 1969, and plunged to the ground killing all 83 people on board.

By JEFF BROWN

jbrown@shelbynews.com

As Revered Bill Horner closed Monday’s memorial service honoring the 50th anniversary of the Allegheny Airlines crash in northwestern Shelby County, a jet airliner quietly passed high overhead. 

That made for a fitting end to a somber ceremony that approximately 100 people attended Monday morning to honor the 83 men and women that perished on Sept. 9, 1969, when a Piper Cherokee collided with a DC-9 jet airliner on approach to what is now Indianapolis International Airport. 

The DC-9 was descending down from 6,000 feet to 2,500 feet on its approach to Indianapolis from Cincinnati. The Piper Cherokee, piloted by Robert Carey, left from northeast of Indianapolis just after 3 p.m. headed for Columbus. Neither Carey, nor the DC-9 pilots, captain James Elrod and first officer William Heckendorn, saw one another in time to react. The Piper’s cockpit was sheared in half while the tail of the DC-9 was heavily damaged making it nearly impossible to control.

The crash speed was estimated to be 350 miles per hour. The DC-9 nosed down into a soybean field near Shady Acres Trailer Park at approximately 400 mph. The impact disintegrated nearly all of the plane and all on board. 

Elrod’s family spearheaded getting a memorial funded and set up at the crash site, which is a corn field today sitting next to the trailer park. There is no evidence that Indiana’s worst airline tragedy occurred there – until now. 

The 55-inch memorial sits atop a concrete slab on the road leading into the trailer park, directly off London Road. The stone was dedicated Monday with Elrod’s oldest son, Mike Elrod, speaking on the significance of the moment while captain Elrod’s other two children, Diane Elrod and John Elrod, removed the black cloth to show off the memorial.

“It is a long time coming. It brings peace of mind,” said Mike Elrod after the service. “Just a little solace. Just helps with the grief.”

Several family members of those that perished made the trip to Shelby County Monday for the service. A private gathering for the victims’ families was slated to occur later in the day at the Shelby County Public Library. 

Jack Boyce was a 25-year-old newsman for WSVL radio in Shelbyville when the tragedy occurred. He was at the crash site that day and was one of the first to report on the grim scene. Boyce opened Monday’s ceremony with a brief introduction before turning the podium over to Shelbyville Mayor Tom DeBaun, who read remarks sent from Gov. Eric Holcomb, who was overseas and unable to attend the service.

Nolan Elrod, the 23-year-old grandson of James Elrod, then stepped to the podium to talk about his family and his grandfather.

“To see how many people still have deep connections to this place, and to see how many people are still affected by what happened so long ago is very powerful,” he said. 

Despite the personal family tragedy, the love of flying never waned in the family. Both of captain Elrod’s sons are pilots as is Nolan, who someday may follow in his grandfather’s footsteps and become a commercial pilot.

“Although I never met him, he has affected my life in profound ways,” he continued. “When James passed, my father and uncle were still very young. As they grew older, they surprisingly, and ironically, decided to become pilots themselves. They weren’t dissuaded by their father’s tragedy, but rather inspired by it. They knew their father was an exceptional pilot. And they knew in their hearts that he and William Heckendorn would have done everything in their power to limit the loss of life on the ground. 

“They wanted to be just like their dad and, well, I want to be just like them. The stories, struggles and perseverance that they have gone through have been passed down to me. It has inspired me to follow in my family’s footsteps. I began flying at a young age and have striven to be the best pilot I can possibly be. And is some way I like to think I made my grandfather proud.”

Before Mike Elrod stepped forward, Sarah Newkirk, assistant director of the Shelby County Historical Society, and Paul Sanders read aloud the names of all 83 that died in the nearby fields on Sept. 9, 1969.